What are intermediate colors? Well, in the opinion of this artist, teacher, and clothing designer, they are the most beautiful and fabulous color mixes out there! Let’s get a clear definition, then see examples, hand-illustrated by my drawings.
What Are Intermediate Colors?
An intermediate color is defined as the result of mixing a primary color with the secondary color next to it on a color wheel. For example, blue and green make blue-green, called teal. Blue is a primary color, and green is a secondary color right next to it on the wheel.
Intermediate colors are bright, clear, and cheerful… not muddy. Why? Because muddy or neutral brown, gray, and black are created by pigment combinations that use all three primary colors — but intermediate colors only use two primaries, and completely exclude the third.
For example, yellow and green make the vibrant yellow-green intermediate color called chartreuse. Red is completely left out of this mix, meaning that yellow plus green is actually just yellow, plus half yellow, half blue (the ingredients of green).
The RYB Color Model
Now, in order to accurately discuss secondary and intermediate colors (or colours, if you’re British), we need to understand that there are actually several ways to define primary colors. This is important, because it changes all the results of mixing them together. Huh?!
To reassure you: we will be working in this article with the traditional RYB color model which has red, yellow, and blue as the primary colors — based on what happens when you do hands-on pigment mixing.
However, it’s important to note that there are other systems out there. In the additive RGB model used with digital screens, red, GREEN, and blue are the primary colors. Meanwhile, in the subtractive CMY or CMYK model used in printing, cyan, magenta, yellow, and sometimes black are the foundational colors. Oh my! Let’s stick to RYB here.
How Many Intermediate Colors Are There?
The answer to how many intermediate colors there are requires some simple math. There are three primary colors, and in the RYB color system, those combine to make three secondary colors: red and yellow make orange, yellow and blue make green, and blue and red make purple. Combine each primary color with the secondary color next to it on the wheel, and you get the result: there are six intermediate colors. Let’s meet them now!
What are intermediate colors? On a color wheel, they're the six combinations of each primary color with the secondary color next to it. See the full list here from the RYB pigment model.
When the primary color, red, is mixed with the secondary color, orange, they form vermilion: a rich and autumnal red-orange. The color is also sometimes spelled "vermillion," but the spelling with two Ls is more commonly accepted. Vermilion is so intense that it's usually reserved for accent colors, but if you want to make a real statement, try it on a floor-length red dress!
Mixing orange with yellow yields amber: a yellowish orange that is bright, cheerful, and sunny. I always try to use this intermediate color in at least one place in every drawing or piece of art I create, because it helps that part of the piece "pop."
Ready for something shocking? Combining the color yellow with green, right next to it on the color wheel, produces chartreuse: the neon green that's almost yellow, it's so electric! This color is usually used sparingly, because it's so -- HELLO, I'M CHARTREUSE!
Now we get to one of my absolute favorite intermediate colors: blue and green mixed together produce teal: a calming, jewel-toned blue-green that goes with just about anything. I use it all the time in my artwork, clothing, and home decor.
Combining together the primary color, blue, with the secondary color, purple, yields violet: a deep and pleasing blue-purple. In some color wheels, the secondary color called purple is named "violet" instead, so in these models, the intermediate color produced by mixing it with blue is called blue-violet.
What do you get when you swirl together the primary color, red, with the secondary color, purple? One of my all-time favorite results: magenta! This reddish-purple is bold, happy, and an essential component in the jewel tone palette that I love so much. In color wheels that label what I'm calling here "purple" as violet, this combination is also called red-violet. Incidentally, a version of this intermediate color was named the 2023 Pantone Color of the Year: Viva Magenta!
My Whole Color Mixing Chart
Want to move beyond intermediate colors and see every single color combination I've ever mixed with my painting and art supplies? Check out this giant color mixing chart! It even has curious combos like blue plus orange, and green plus purple. I'm always adding to this chart, so feel free to request what else you'd like me to swirl together.
Tertiary and Analogous Colors
I hope you enjoyed that list of intermediate colors! Now, a few more definitions. Are intermediate colors tertiary colors? By some definitions, yes, because in those models, tertiary colors are the combinations of a primary color with a secondary color. In other models, the answer is no, because tertiary colors are seen in those frameworks as the combination of a secondary color with another secondary color, such as purple and orange or green and purple.
How do analogous colors fit in? That term “analogous colors” refers to a set of colors that are similar, and are next to each other on a color wheel. So yes, a triad of one intermediate color plus the two surrounding colors that make it — like red, vermilion, and orange — would be considered analogous colors.
Intermediate Colors, in Sum
Now, which intermediate colors are YOUR favorites, and why? Which show up the most in your clothing, artwork, and home decor? Do share!
Want more? Check out, “Why is art important?”
The author and artist, Lillie Marshall, is a National Board Certified Teacher of English who has been a public school educator since 2003, and an experienced Reiki practitioner since 2018. All art on this site is original and hand-drawn by Lillie. She launched DrawingsOf.com Educational Cartoons in 2020, building upon the success of her other two sites, AroundTheWorldL.com (established 2009) and TeachingTraveling.com (founded 2010). Subscribe to Lillie’s monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media to stay connected!